Stone-cold killer cats thirst for bird blood

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

I’ve been examining environmental priorities for Federal Way.

To sum up so far, I’ve highlighted maintaining healthy forests and promoting low impact development as top local priorities. I’ve also noted global warming as an issue the city should explore for effective, local action.

But improving Federal Way’s environment shouldn’t just be a priority for the city government. Individuals have an important role to play. Uh oh, you’re thinking. Here comes the old plea to ride the bus, compost your lawn trimmings and avoid plastic grocery bags.

Sure, you should do those things, but I have another environmental prerogative on my mind. I’m going to zero in on a segment of our population that, by doing one simple thing, can have a significant positive impact on local bird populations.

It’s safe to say that just about everyone likes birds (aside from crows and perhaps those pesky Steller’s jays). They’re pretty, often have beautiful songs and many are somewhat tolerant of humans, so we see them frequently.

When it comes to native Pacific Northwest birds, there are plenty of threats. Habitat loss and transparently clean windows aside, one of the larger threats to native birds is predation by cats.

Conflict of interest disclosure: I am a dog lover and owner of two mixed-breed mutts. While I have owned cats in the past and can tolerate them, I believe dogs are a higher form of pet life and prefer sharing my house with canines.

Lest cat lovers find me ignorant of canine environmental impacts, I will note that dogs can be a water quality threat, if their owners don’t scoop up after them. Whatever comes out of the south end of a dog that isn’t properly disposed of ends up in local creeks and, eventually, Puget Sound.

While your own dog’s mess may not seem like much, it all adds up when you consider there are thousands of dogs in King County.

But dogs don’t appear to be a significant threat to local wildlife. Cats, however, are stone cold killers.

I know dogs will chase cats and stray small mammals that happen across their path. Most dogs, however, have had the competence bred right out of them. My own two dogs for instance — fearsome mixed breeds with a little pit bull and Rottweiler thrown in — couldn’t catch a squirrel on crutches. We have squirrels in our neighborhood who run through our backyard just to taunt my dogs.

Dogs are scavengers by nature; they make their living by living off people, not by killing.

Cats, on the other hand, are instinctual predators. While they allow us to feed them store-bought food, most cats can’t deny the urge to hunt. Cats retain enough ruthless predator inside their domesticated exterior to catch birds and small mammals.

Garfield caricatures aside, Tabby is a killer.

More than a dozen studies published in scientific journals over the past decade have fingered domestic cats as significant bird killers. A University of Wisconsin study found that state’s cats were killing up to 109 birds per cat annually.

More recent research has indicated that in addition to the effects of predation, the mere presence of cats causes bird populations to decline due to the fear factor alone. Some bird species just leave the area when they see cats.

In some areas, cats have helped drive endangered birds to extinction and bird lovers to distraction. In Galveston, Texas, a bird lover was jailed for protecting endangered piping plovers by blowing away feral cats with a shotgun.

Here in Federal Way, cats may not be a threat to endangered birds — bald eagles have been taken off the endangered species list, but somehow, I think they can take care of themselves. But undoubtedly, cats prey on the local songbirds that we commonly see and enjoy.

The solution to this environmental problem, however, is incredibly simple. No, I’m not advocating more Texas-style pussycat vigilantism.

Cat owners, keep your kitties inside, where the only animals they can hurt are the toy mice you buy them. If only all environmental problems were this easy to solve.

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos. Contact: chinook@hylebos.org or (253) 874-2005.

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